Chinese Tech Companies Reinvent Online Philanthropy


SEATTLE — When asked what parts of China are “big”, one might think of the enormous population, vast territory, millennia-long history or major investments all over the world. In fact, China’s philanthropy numbers are also huge: the donations from the top 100 philanthropists tripled in a six-year period, hitting the $4.6 billion mark in 2016, partly thanks to the increasing involvement and innovation by Chinese internet companies in online philanthropy.

According to the CAF World Giving Index 2017, China tied with India for number one in “Top countries by the number of people helping a stranger” list, as 340 million people helped strangers through donation, volunteering and other means. The United Nation Development Programme Internet Philanthropy in China Report (IPC Report) pointed out that in 2014, more than one billion donations totaling ¥437 million were made through online donation platforms.

The Beginning of Online Philanthropy

In response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, Tencent, an internet and technology giant, developed an online donation platform supporting the relief efforts, which then became “the turning point for the company’s engagement in philanthropy”, said Tencent co-founder and chief administration officer Charles Chen. Chinese online philanthropy took off from there, with Tencent quickly raising $2.9 million during the earthquake relief campaign.

By 2013, Tencent added donation options to its instant messaging and social media app WeChat, which has a user base of one billion people. Supplanting traditional donation boxes, e-payment platforms and in-app donation venues in smartphones are much more user-friendly. WeChat users are able to donate any amount with a swipe of a finger, making philanthropic engagement easier than ever.

The IPC Report noted that three types of online charity platforms have become common: online donation platforms, charitable crowd-funding platforms and online charity stores, distinguished by the nature of the host organization and form of fundraising. Tencent’s in-app donation program belongs to the first category, which is also the dominant force, accounting for more than two-thirds of the donations from all online philanthropic platforms.

Features of Online Platforms

Besides digitized charity drives, there are numerous inventive ways through which people can donate using online philanthropy platforms. For example, WeChat users can donate their daily “steps walked”, statistical data collected from health apps in smartphones, through a matching program supported by charitable corporate contributors. People are also able to donate their “voice” by reading stories and articles to be included in audiobooks for the blind.

WeChat’s charity campaign Little Kids’ Gallery offered the chance for WeChat users to purchase digital artwork made by people with autism and other mental disabilities at an extremely low price (as low as ¥1, equal to $0.15). The campaign has met with phenomenal success, as it raised more than ¥15 million over the 24-hour period. More than five million users participated in this fundraising campaign, a scale that has rarely been seen.

Other internet companies like Alibaba and Sina have also actively participated in online philanthropy. Ant Love, a pre-installed program in Alibaba’s mobile-payment app Alipay, connects Alipay’s 500 million users to more than 1,000 charity organizations and offers various creative ways through which people can donate to good causes.

A popular initiative is Ant Forest, which is a game integrated into Alipay’s mobile app that allows users to plant and fertilize an animated tree with “green energy” collected through mobile payments. Once the energy of the planted tree reaches a certain level, a real tree will be planted in Inner Mongolia by Alipay’s partner SEE Foundation and the China Green Foundation to slow down desertification and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Concerns Addressed

Corruption in charity has long been a concern by citizen donors since the 2011 Red Cross Society of China scandal. The public demands transparency from charitable organizations and their fundraising campaigns. In the face of charitable organizations’ damaged credibility, online charity platforms have become an apt mechanism that addresses both transparency and accountability issues in humanitarian work. Donors can easily access the details of the projects for which they are supporting, and track their donations anytime through apps, websites and online reports.

“I’ve never seen anything else like it,” said the director of corporate responsibility at PwC China, referring to Tencent’s philanthropic platform on WeChat. He believes that the competition for funds from online platforms has also given rise to improvements in governance at Chinese charitable NGOs.

On September 9, 2015, Tencent Charity launched an internet philanthropy day called 9.9 Philanthropy Day, aiming to further innovation by other businesses and participation by internet users in online philanthropy. The day illustrates the commitment of Chinese companies to online philanthropy and how it can be used to bring aid to millions of people.

– Chaorong Wang

Photo: Flickr


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